FLOW STATE: In the Zone of Peak Performance

“Flow” is something that we talk about a lot in the martial arts. It is known by many names. In my Japanese martial arts training, we called it Nagare and Mu-Shin while the Chinese call it Wu Wei. In western terms we often refer to it as “The Zone.” All of these terms can be best described as a state of in that the individual is performing their task or art unconsciously with a level of mental detachment where it seems as if the work is doing itself. But how do we get there? Is it really that simple as just flowing?

One of my instructors in Chinese Martial Arts used to scold me while I was running my forms. He would say, “You strike like a Karate man…. STOP IT! JUST FLOW!” Aside from the clear bias against Karate, one that I do not share, he did have a good point. I was accustomed to running my forms with a certain kind of crispness that that let the focus and power resonate with on lookers. This was likely habits developed through years of competition in sparring and forms. Instead he wanted to see more fluidity in my movement. In the principles espoused here, it is the fluidity that leads to the speed and the speed that leads to power (Force=Mass X Acceleration). However, he was not able to adequately convey that in his teaching and it took me months to figure out what the hell he wanted. Also, he likely misunderstood my deliberate focus on showing the technique as a forced concentration due to lack of proficiency.

In fact, I have had a number of teachers over the years who were skilled practitioners, but could not convey that skill through their teaching. This got me thinking… What kind of instructor will I be? What in my individual make up could I bring to the table? I realized one of my strongest traits was my ability to research, synthesize, simplify, and convey. This is a by-product of my education in history, anthropology, and now my pursuing a career in medicine.

In all of these fields, you are required to synthesize loads of interdisciplinary information and formulate correlations to back to back up a thesis. Sometimes it is as simple as making a compelling argument for historical and cultural cause and effect, while at other times, actually formulating hypotheses that must stand up to the more complex rigors of western empiricism. This is something I strive to do with my own training and teaching and what I would like to share with you today.

One discipline that I find incredibly helpful is sports psychology. Many of you who are sports fans or combat sports competitors probably are utilizing this as a resource. However it is not something that the rest of you should be ignoring. The field exists to develop and improve upon methods to increase human performance in sports where, often, billions of dollars of salaries are paid out yearly to their athletes. Some of the topics that I will focus on are Common Task Training, Operant Conditioning, and a functional framework for that illusive concept of Mastery.

WAX ON WAX OFF: Common Task Training:

Now, some of you may still be resistant to the correlation I am forming between martial arts and sport, so I would like to also tie in the use of sports psychology in the most serious thing any of us could engage in, that is WAR. While serving in the United States Army with combat deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Global War on Terrorism, I under went a great deal of training. From firearms, advanced first aid, combatives, tactical movement, and combat driving, the outcome of all the training was the same, to teach large numbers of individuals with various physical and mental capabilities to operate as a cohesive force under the stress and pressure of life and death combat.

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One of the governing principles In much of the training was the concept of K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid). For the military, this is something that is at the heart of all the training drills and doctrine. We perform simple tasks at high repetitions under increasing pressure and then with more complex applications. In the perspectives of martial arts, this is the same as having a solid functional foundation in a basic set of versatile and useful skills in which you can build upon as you advance in rank and experience.

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As thinking and creative beings we often have a tendency to over complicate things. This is probably one of the best and worst traits of our species. It is the same propensity for complex thinking that has spurred technological development and yet can trip us up when attempting to solve more mundane problems. How many people do you know who cannot see the forest through the trees? This is not to say that complexity is the enemy of flow or function. If your training methods are deliberately geared towards the development of a more complex set of skills that can work under stress and pressure, then you will likely be able to meet the challenge. But if they are not, and you are not actively trying to improve them, then those inadequacies will be your downfall.

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A good example of active improvement of a training method can be found in Lt Col. David Grossman’s book “On Killing.” I was fortunate enough to hear Grossman lecture while I was serving with the 101stAirborne’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team (Rakkasans). According to Grossman’s research, the current incarnation of military marksmanship training produces far higher kill rates than those of previous conflicts. This was due to the evolution of the training doctrine and range designs. In previous decades, individuals would line up and fire at traditional bulls eye targets. A decade or so later, human silhouettes were used. In both these iterations of training, the commanders and bean counters realized that many individual were either not willing to discharge their weapons at a human target or they would deliberately shoot to miss. After a few more cracks at the problem, modern military marksmanship uses 3 dimensional human shaped targets that pop up at various ranges and only stay up for a set number of seconds. The closer targets are up for shorter durations than the further ones. This adds urgency and a reflex component to the system providing greater realism and stress that is then further reinforced by a punishment and reinforcement/ reward structure for performance. Firearms safety and weapon operation (ie malfunction clearance and combat reloading) are also emphasized throughout the training.

Going a step further into the realm of small unit tactics and MOUT, the skills of firearms safety, weapon operation, and marksmanship are put to the test in various live fire training events. The Shoot House is by far my favorite. Nothing tests your ability to shoot, move, communicate, and operate your weapon than flowing through a house with unknown layout with a few or your best bros with real bullets flying past your head. If you stop, freeze, or hesitate, you not only endanger yourself, but also your brothers. But I digress.

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DESPITE ALL MY RAGE I AM STILL JUST A RAT IN A CAGE: Operant Conditioning

One of the founding fathers of modern psychology is a man named B.F. Skinner. In the 1960’s he performed numerous experiments with rats. If you grew up prior to the 1990’s your parents were more than likely applying, some of Skinner’s research, but hey…..

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Operant Conditioning was the term that Skinner coined to describe his method for developing favorable behaviors while altering and eliminating unfavorable ones. This is achieved through positive reinforcement for success and negative consequence for failure. As described above, in the context of military training, successful performance in training could get you praises from your superiors and peers, a medal for your uniform, a half or full day off, or even a promotion/ pay raise. While poor performance could result in extra duty/ retraining, reprimand, and in the case of a disciplinary issue, the loss privileges as well as rank and pay. The same mechanisms are used for professional athletes as well. And while some may argue against the merits of negative consequence, this approach has been successful in military, professional athletics, and corporate sectors.

Anyone who has done traditional martial arts in the western world is fully acquainted with applications of Skinner’s work. The dangling carrot of Rank promotions or interschool awards like student of the month and participation trophies are a good motivator for performance while staying to clean the dojo/ dojang/ kwoon, as well as extra physical training like pushups, burpees, etc are great motivators to not suck.

As many of us know, the scales are definitely tipped in recent years toward the extreme end of positive reinforcement. Many instructors, for business purposes are merely selling ranks in order to collect more funds on a monthly basis and keep the students motivated by the collection of these now meaningless trinkets pushing to their next test. If your school has more belt colors than Crayola and each belt has 3 stripes, functional skill may be low objective on their business model. However, if used appropriately, a belt/ ranking system in tandem with a functional skills focused curriculum can be a useful tool for gauging the skill level of students and driving them to succeed.

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In my opinion some of the best martial arts where you can see the all the concepts listed through this post play out in real time is Brazilian Jujitsu, Judo, and Filipino Martial Art of Balintawak. These arts are designed to produce this effect. Through the repetition of drills and techniques in an active and alive training format, we are attempting to develop our ability to move through various positions against a resisting opponent while attempting to recognize the opportunity for ways to beat our opponent while countering and thwarting their attempts to do the same to us. Due to the symbiotic nature of these arts, the better your training partners are, the better you can become. You are often working with a partner on day one so there is the built in punishment and reinforcement/ reward system driving your improvement.

YOU SUCK AND THE FIRST STEP TO RECOVERY IS ADMITTING YOU HAVE A PROBLEM: A Framework for Flow

Many of us do not fully recognize our inadequacies because we often do not test ourselves. This is what I really enjoy about the training methods of these arts. How many times can you get, locked, choked, slammed, or struck before you realize that you need to put in the work or quit? In some of the places I have trained and taught, the instructors and students would gladly help you make that decision. Bad for business, maybe… Good for improving, definitely.

Abraham Maslow, another famous 20th Century psychologist, famous for his Hiearchy of Needs, developed a lesser-known theoretical framework pertaining to the general development of competency in any task or field. As a self-aware creature of ego, no one likes to be made to feel inadequate or have their faults and weaknesses drawn out and put on display. This is a major problem facing our society as a whole. Some have said, if there are no losers, then there can be no winners. Obviously this is not true because people win and loose everyday, however, the problem is in individual perception. If you have grown up in a culture where everyone wins and receives a “participation trophy” then what is the incentive to push your-self to grow and improve? These people you have likely never stopped to ask themselves tough introspective questions like these.

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They fall in to the First Stage of Maslows 4 Levels of Competency: Unconscious Incompetence. Basically, they suck and everyone seems to know it but them. The training methods of combat sports like boxing, BJJ, Judo, MMA, Thai Boxing, and certain traditional arts like Balintawak very quickly fix this character flaw or at least weeds out these types of individuals who are resistant to the realization.

The next stage is Conscious Incompetence. In this stage the individual knows they are lacking and therefore are in the correct mindset for real growth and development. When you know where you are you can figure out what needs to be done to get to where you want to go. The final 2 stages are where the ability to Flow is truly developed.

Stage 3 is Conscious Competence. Here you are able to perform the task with some focus and effort. Many do not get past this stage. More often than not for the onlooker, there is seemingly no difference between this level of skill and the next. If someone appears to perform a task competently and without effort, then to the observer, they are skillful, however, with the respect of martial arts, this is not enough. As anyone who has ever been in combat or even a street fight knows, there is no time for conscious thought. This stage is a wall for most and a doorway to be walked through by a select few. If you do not possess the capacity for introspection and the desire for growth you will stop here.

The final stage of Maslow’s model is Unconscious Competence. Here is the threshold of that Flow State. When the task is drilled so much that it becomes second nature. Here the BJJ practitioner or Judoka can feel the moment when to apply a technique, counter, or flow to another when their first attempt fails. The thai fighter, boxer or Balintawak man recognizes the strike with adequate time to fluidly and effectively defend/ evade and counter strike before the opponent has a chance to react. The conscious mind is not present and you are simply moving and completing your task as if on autopilot. With respect to the arts mentioned above as well as the combat skills previously outlined, it is the individual who can Flow better, with out any cognitive breakdown from conscious thought or clumsiness of movement, that will win.

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CONCLUSION:

One final component to this process that we should consider is the goals and expectations of our training. Remember it is called martial arts, a term comprised of 2 different words. Many of us will, at different times, give precedence to one or the other. It is very important to know what it is you are training for. As coaches and instructors, it is important that we do not allow or delude our students into false notions on the matter. As I see it, many of us in the west should endeavor to try a little more martial with our art, however that is a matter of opinion. I fully acknowledge and appreciate individuals capable of performing great athletic feats for the sake of artistic expression, however, it is important to understand the purpose of such performances and not conflate it with combat. If this is what you train for, be honest and then be the best you can be. If you are training or teaching for combat, the same goes for you.

Too many martial arts instructors, in order to compete with one another, are attempting to reinvent to the wheel to have something new or different than everyone else, and frankly, it is preposterous. As Bruce Lee said, “A kick is just a kick, and a punch is just a punch.” Men of tougher stuff than us have developed systematic forms of warfare cross culturally throughout human history. It has served them well, so how could some one in the 21stcentury think they are creating something new? The last great development in martial arts came in the 20th century by individuals like E.W. Barton-Wright, Imi Lichtenfeld, Gene Lebelle, and Bruce Lee, who espoused the merits of cross training. After the sacred cow of any single style having all the answers was shattered, there can really be no claim to proprietary fighting forms. The only argument that can be made regarding superiority is that of training methods, but even with this, there is nothing new under the sun.

Balintawak, Boxing, Judo, and Jujitsu simply focus on real time application and breaking away from simple patterned behaviors found in other training methods. In this way we can adapt, react, and problem solve in ambiguous circumstances. Additionally the training methods of these arts and their link to the illusive “flow-state” actually improve functional performance and can be a neurological short cut to learning. The important factor that ties these methods to flow is the inherent risk in the training and the neurochemical/ hormone reactions that are triggered by anxiety and/ or fear.


According to Steven Kotler, “one of the best ways to trigger flow in through challenge and skill balance.” Meaning that you want the challenge to be slightly higher than the your individual skill. This sweet spot produces the necessary level of anxiety / fear to keep your attention and focus but not so much that it overwhelms you. This is the basis for ALL the arts I have mentioned above. All of these arts rely on the drilling of a junior practitioner by a senior student or instructor. Whether we are referring to Balintawak Agak, Judo Randori, Boxing mitt drilling, or rolling in BJJ and the lack of superfluous materials, methods, or movements makes these arts among the best for functional combat performance. In light of this information, it would seem that these arts and their methods, through constant repetition and adaptation over the years, were many decades ahead of the modern scientific understanding of the neurological mechanisms of learning and human performance.

When our training methods align with our desired training outcomes, and we are disciplined to not let our ego or that of our students get out of check, then we are operating with a good road map to arrive at the elusive Flow State. Whether your flow consists of a solo kata performance, submitting or throwing opponent after opponent in Randori or Tournament, weapons based defense and counter, the fast and fluid operation of a firearm, or knocking MOFOS smooth the FUG out, we all should strive to hit that level of Unconscious Competence which is the first step down the long road to mastery of your craft.

“Where should you put your mind…?”

 

“If you put your mind on the enemy’s movement,
your mind will be taken by the enemy’s movement.
If you put your mind on the enemy’s sword,
your mind will be taken by the enemy’s sword.
If you put your mind on the enemy’s sword,
your mind will be taken by the enemy’s sword.
If you put your mind on the enemy’s sword,
your mind will be taken by the enemy’s sword.
If you put your mind to trying to cut the enemy,
your mind will be taken by trying to cut the enemy.
If you put your mind on on our sword,
your mind will be taken by the our sword.
If you put your mind to trying not to be cut,
your mind will be taken by trying not to be cut.
If you put your mind on our posture,
your mind will be taken by the posture.
 There is no place to put your mind.”
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Immovable Wisdom
-Takuan Soho (1573-1646)
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